Chris Wirth just wrote a nice post summarizing the use of digital SLR camera systems for insect macrophotography. Having just gone through the process of upgrading to a dSLR system from a point-and-shoot myself, I can relate to much of what he discusses. The advantages are clear – higher image quality, far greater magnification capabilities, and control over lighting, shutter speed, aperture, etc. He also discusses the disadvantages – chiefly co$t, weight, and initial learning curve. He ends with this recommendation:
…if you are serious about insect photography and have the monetary resources, a DSLR is your only choice. Again, as of yet, nothing else provides similar quality or control.
Although I dabbled in insect photography many years ago with an Olympus OM-10 SLR film camera and a Zeiko 50mm macro lens, it wasn’t until I started this blog 18 months ago that I started making a real effort to photograph insects, using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX3 point-and-shoot that my dad had given to me for my birthday earlier that year. At first, I was amazed at the macro capabilities of this little camera – point, autofocus, and shoot! Yes, the photo needed to be cropped, and the reliance on natural light was not only limiting but often resulted in deep shadows – but nothing a little Photoshop couldn’t fix! It wasn’t long, however, before I began to see the limitations – not just on size, with tiger beetles being near the lower end of the size of subject I could photograph, but also with the quality of the images themselves. The perfectionist in me started envisioning what I could do if only I had the equipment. Mind you, I’m proud of the photographs I’ve acquired over the past months, given what I had to work with. But now that I have the equipment to do it right, I see a conflict on the horizon – do I attempt to go back and re-photograph all of those species that I’ve already photographed, or do I move on and and not look back? Perhaps a little of both is the best approach.
In the meantime, I’ve got to learn how to use this camera. The first weekend I had it, I accompanied my friend and colleague, Chris Brown, to nearby Shaw Nature Reserve, where Chris had previously noted good populations of the very uncommon Cicindela unipunctata (one-spotted tiger beetle) [now Cylindera unipunctata, fide Erwin & Pearson 2008 – more on this in a future post] – what a fantastic species for my first photo shoot with the new setup. Unfortunately, we did not find this species (although I will eventually). Instead, I focused on the very prolific population of Cicindela sexguttata (six-spotted tiger beetle) that we found at this site. Cicindela sexguttata is the one tiger beetle that is, more than any other North American species, known by entomologists and non-entomologists alike. Anyone who has ever taken a walk in the eastern forests during spring has encountered this beetle – flashing brilliant green in the dappled sunlight, always a few yards ahead on the path. While belonging to the “spring/fall” group of species, adults of this species break ranks and stay put in their burrows during fall while other spring/fall species come out and explore for a bit before digging back in for the winter (Pearson et al. 2006). While many individuals do show the six white spots on the elytra that give the species its common name, this character is actually quite variable, with some northern populations completely lacking spots.
As tiger beetles go, it’s one of the more difficult to photograph because of its shiny, metallic coloration (as opposed to the flat, dull coloration of Cyl. unipunctata). This was probably a good thing in terms of starting the learning process. I limited myself during this session to the 100mm macro lens (leaving the 1-5x beast for another day), with the photographs shown here being some of the better ones. While I like them, I also see a few things I did wrong. First was the flash – I set the flash units to 1/4 power and didn’t use any kind of diffusers, and as a result the lighting turned out harsh – especially for this brilliantly-colored, metallic species. I’ve softened the highlights a little bit in Photoshop, but the results are still not as good as if I had used a lower power and diffused the light, and ultimately my goal is to achieve well lit photographs that do not need post-processing to make them look right. Other than that, the day was mostly about getting used to handling the camera and learning how to judge f-stop based on my manual settings for exposure (1/200 sec) and ISO (100). The single individuals (above) were taken in full sunlight, and in that situation my f-stops tended to be too low (resulting in overexposure), while the mating pair was in shade where my f-stops tended too high (underexposed). Next time, I’ll try the diffusers I bought, use less flash power, and do more f-stop bracketing until I get a good feel for what I need in a given situation.
For comparison, here is the one C. sexguttata photograph I took with the point-and-shoot last year. This is about as good a photograph as I could get of this species using that camera. Besides being heavily cropped, it differs by being not very well exposed (despite post brightening), showing heavy shadows (despite post lightening), and lacking detail.
Erwin, T. L. and D. L. Pearson. 2008. A treatise on the Western Hemisphere Caraboidea (Coleoptera). Their classification, distributions, and ways of life. Volume II (Carabidae-Nebriiformes 2-Cicindelitae). Pensoft Series Faunistica 84. Pensoft Publishers, Sofia, 400 pp. + 33 color plates.
Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009